The news at the end of the first week of 2010 in the Midcoast is dominated by education costs, as Maine School Administrative District 40 debates closing smaller village schools, Regional School Unit 13 hears rebukes from students and parents about consolidating Georges Valley High School and Rockland District High School, and the Five Town Community School District board casts a critical eye on the costs of supporting the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland.

All are conversations well worth having, and a long time in coming. And they are not over.

Members of the public — parents, students and taxpayers — are confronting once again how best to spend well earned dollars on the education of students from kindergarten through grade 12. Public education represents the largest chunk of local spending in all Maine communities, and one of the larger economic sectors. Who does not have a neighbor, friend or relative employed by a local school system? If there is one local issue that citizens ought to continuously review, public education is it.

And again, the focus falls more on the where, and less on the how and why. It apparently seems easier to talk about engineering studies, contracting bids and union negotiations than about what kind of math is being taught, or whether students might benefit more from learning how to use hand tools as opposed to spending more time in computer labs. For decades, Maine communities have debated over and over whether to spend money on new schools, close old schools, or renovate, purchase, or expand, as if resolving those questions would produce high caliber academics and intellectual high achievers.

Excellence in education will not flourish in these discussions. We, as a society, have never been more equipped to talk about innovative approaches to schooling our children with tax dollars than we are now. Endless research has been conducted on how children learn, and that research points to smaller class sizes, hands-on instruction (yes, let boys and girls get out from behind their desks), and individual learning plans. Excellence in education relies on school boards exploring alternative ideas, and not accepting conventional thinking that unfortunately now is targeting the easy fixes.

No matter how much current budget thinking trends toward larger class sizes and eliminating curriculum progress that has been made over the last 10 years, we cannot afford to accept those measures at face value. School boards have a lot of work to do as we march into the annual budget season, and we encourage them to continue tossing all ideas onto the table for frank discussion.